By Michael Schneider, TV Guide magazine — In what could be the largest off-network syndication deal in history, "The Simpsons" is coming to FXX in August 2014. FX Networks also acquired the exclusive video-on-demand and non-linear rights to the show, which will be available on the upcoming FXNOW app.
The deal includes "The Simpsons’" first 24 seasons (or 530 episodes), with the show’s 25th season set to be added in September. (Future years will also be added once they’ve run a full season on Fox.)
TV Guide Magazine first broke the news in July that Twentieth Television (the syndication arm of "Simpsons" producer 20th Century Fox Television) was shopping "The Simpsons" for the first time since the cartoon’s 1989 launch. At the time, analysts believed the show could fetch as much as $1.5 million an episode (similar to what USA Network paid for Modern Family repeats). That’s close to $825 million; but add a few more seasons on top of that, and "The Simpsons" could ultimately come close to a $1 billion investment for FX Networks.
"It’s landmark," says Chuck Saftler, the president of program strategy and chief operating officer of FX Networks, who declined to confirm a dollar figure. "This is a deal that stands alone and apart from all others. I can’t go into the specifics beyond that. But there is no other deal that can even stand up in comparison to the breadth and scope of this specific deal."
The "Simpsons" acquisition will help grow the burgeoning FXX channel, which launched in September in place of Fox Soccer Channel. But the real game-changer in FX Networks’ "Simpsons" deal lies in its unprecedented VOD and streaming deal. FX managed to clear 100% of those rights to the show, which could help make FXNOW an instant major player and rival to popular existing apps like HBO Go. Saftler and FX have been busy snapping up blockbuster movie rights in addition to their own series as they looked to build a robust app – and now "The Simpsons" will be at the center of it.
"The fact that we were able to negotiate a deal that gave us all episodes for both our linear channels and for our non-linear app and website made this a deal that was built for the way the future of television will look," Saftler says. The "Simpsons" deal allows for all episodes at all times. Most deals, he says, give networks the ability only to stream five or ten episodes at a time.
"This was a very long, hard and complicated negotiation," says FX Networks CEO John Landgraf.
A beaming Saftler told TV Guide Magazine that his deal for "The Simpsons" was two decades in the making. "This is the fulfillment of my 20-year history at FX," Saftler says. "On my first day at FX it was my goal to put ‘The Simpsons’ on our network. Mind you, this is going to be on FXX. But it’s taken 20 years to fulfill that goal. So I’m a very patient and very happy guy. My 20-year wait has now paid off."
FXX will likely air around 18 episodes of "The Simpsons" per week, comparable to how many repeats TBS runs of "The Big Bang Theory" and USA schedules of "Modern Family." "As we are at the very early days of FXX, we felt that there was no better fit for that network than ‘The Simpsons,’" Saftler says. "Especially for a network that’s targeted at the younger end of the FX brand."
But Saftler warns not to characterize FXX as becoming The Simpsons Channel. "I really feel that this is going to be one dimension of what FXX is rather than the whole of what FXX is. I feel that this is a really important dimension of the network but it is only one dimension of it." The "Simpsons" acquisition comes as FX Networks makes some early tweaks to the new channel. Nightly talk show "Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell" was just canceled, while new animated series "Chozen," originally announced as FXX’s first original series, was moved to FX instead.
The decision to use "The Simpsons" as a tool to grow FXX is reminiscent of how "NYPD Blue" and "The X-Files" were used in 1997 to relaunch FX into its modern iteration.
Of course, those deals led to lawsuits by "X-Files" star David Duchovny and "NYPD Blue" executive producer Steven Bochco, both of whom felt that Twentieth had left money on the table. For "The Simpsons," Twentieth and FX were no doubt cognizant of the fact that profit participants like Matt Groening and James L. Brooks were watching the deal closely.
Groening, Brooks and longtime showrunner Al Jean were mentioned and thanked several times in FX’s press release. "Only the profit participants can speak to (whether they’re happy with the financial terms), but all I can say is it is the richest deal in the history of off-network syndication," Saftler says. "And we paid dearly for the right to have this landmark show."
It’s believed that as many as five conglomerates made a play for "The Simpsons." But FX Networks was always seen as the front-runner for the show. Other logical suitors may have included Turner (TNT, TBS, Adult Swim) and Viacom (the company behind MTV, Comedy Central and TV Land). 20th Century Fox is protective of the show, which has made billions of dollars for its corporate parent over the years. Handing the keys to a rival would have brought in fresh outside money, but it would have also allowed a competitor to benefit from the brand – while perhaps hurting FX and FXX.
FX Networks’ unique deal for "The Simpsons" was aided by the fact that the animated staple had been kept off cable due to Twentieth’s original 1993 broadcast syndication deals with TV stations. At the time, an animated series hadn’t been syndicated in the modern era, giving stations enough leverage to demand exclusivity as long as the show was still in originals on Fox. In recent years Twentieth amended that wording in its station deals, finally allowing a cable sale.
Negotiations for the "Simpsons" deal took place over the last month-and-a-half. "The moment we knew it was available for us to go get it, we went after it," Saftler says. "It was really important for us to bring it home."
Michael Schneider is the Los Angeles Bureau Chief of TV Guide magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @franklinavenue